Hopefully, at some point in your journey, you’ve experienced an extraordinary culture or an environment where you’ve enjoyed belonging to an organization or team. Even if you didn’t always love all the work, you loved being part of that experience.
Unfortunately, you’ve probably also had an experience where you worked in a miserable culture. It could have been your dream job, but it turned out to be a sad place to work. You didn’t enjoy going there, and you found this discouraging energy about yourself — culture matters. Culture matters significantly, and as leaders, have a responsibility to be keepers of culture.
WHAT IS CULTURE
Culture, by definition, is the beliefs and customs of a particular group, much like the way we refer to ethnic cultures with their unique traditions, customs, and beliefs.
In our context, however, it’s our teams and the people within our organizations. It’s a way of thinking, a way of behaving, and a way of working together in an organization. The way that we do things creates our culture.
We know that scientifically we each have unique DNA. It’s different from anyone else, and the same is true of our teams and our organizations. The culture in your organization is your organization’s unique DNA. They’re the idiosyncrasies that set you apart and makes you and your team unique and different. I often say it’s the collection of nuances that make you unique. Our journey as leaders includes figuring out what are those idiosyncrasies and nuances that make us unique as a team and how do we maximize those.
The critical thing to know about culture is that you can’t copy culture. It’s a natural temptation to try and replicate an experience, but we need to be mindful and cautious. You may think, If I just did that, we’d have an extraordinary culture, but it’s just not true. It will end up feeling forced, stale, and it will lack authenticity. Today, young leaders repel inauthenticity. They don’t want to be a part of it.
Culture can’t be reproduced from another organization because it’s not part of your DNA. Your culture is going to be unique to your organization, and it’s a leader’s responsibility to help define it. Culture is the personality of your organization, and it’s born from who you are, and who you are as a collective group.
6 TRUTHS ABOUT CULTURE
1. Culture Exist Whether You’ve Defined It or Not
Whether you’ve defined it and put it on the office wall or not, you have a culture. Culture exists, so be aware of that truth.
2. You’re Building or Eroding Culture Every Day
Culture is living and breathing, and it cannot be stagnant. As a leader, you need to know whether you’re building or eroding your culture. Which is it?
3. Everyone Contributes to Culture
Both the leader and the followers contribute to the culture of an organization. Each seat in an organization contributes to the culture. That’s part of its uniqueness. It’s part of what makes every culture a little different. It’s the collection of the whole that is contributing to the culture, so no similar group of people exists anywhere else. Your culture is unique just by the fact that the people on your team are unique
4. Leaders Have a Disproportionate Influence on Culture
If you’re the leader of a team or organization, you have a disproportionate influence on your culture, and it’s your job to steward it well. A culture like everything else comes from the top. Everything rises and falls on leadership, so culture stems from you. Whatever culture you have, whether it’s good or bad, you as a leader are responsible for it. You have to own it. You have to embrace that fact, understand it, and get to work on it
5. You Can’t Afford to Ignore Culture
Another truth about culture is that you can’t ignore it. You cannot let it coast. You can’t put it on autopilot. Again you’re either building or eroding culture every day. It’s one of your greatest stewardship responsibilities as a leader. I realize the idea of paying attention to culture can be exasperating. You have other things going on, and you have a lot of responsibilities. But culture is the birthplace of everything that happens in your organization, so you need to be mindful of its impact.
6. Culture is More About the “Who” and “Why”
Culture is more about the who and the why rather than the what and the how. I would bet that the cultures you enjoyed were more about who you were working for and why you were doing it more than what you were doing or how you were doing it. The who and the why are essential to the culture.
4 FALSE ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT CULTURE
1. Culture Isn’t A System Or An Isolated Initiative
You can’t do a one-time culture blast and expect a great culture to appear magically. You can sometimes put systems in place that help support and reinforce your culture however, great culture is not an episodic event. I find too many leaders that attempt to course-correct by doing an event to fix and make everything perfect. It’s not going to happen. Culture isn’t an isolated initiative or even something that you can give to a task force. A task force may recognize you need to focus on culture, but this is not something you can delegate. You, as a leader, need to own it.
2. Culture Isn’t A Bunch of Perks And Fun Stuff
We see great organizations like Zappos or Google embody “fun” and we think that’s great culture. Fun can contribute and be part of a great culture, but if you’re relying on free soda and dry cleaning service to create a great culture, you’re going to end up with entitled staff who take rather than give. Again, those things can be a part of a good culture, but that’s not its entirety. It’s important to know that you can’t just add fun and ping pong tables and expect a great culture.
3. Culture Isn’t A 30-Hour Work Week
Culture isn’t a shorter workweek with Fridays off in the summer. Great perks can be amazing, and they can contribute to the culture, but on their own, they fall flat and lead to entitlement. Some of the greatest cultures I’ve experienced were also some of the hardest working teams. They worked crazy hours but still had an extraordinary culture. It’s not always about the hours worked or days off. It can certainly be part of it, and perks can contribute to a great culture, but it’s not all of it.
4. Culture Isn’t Loving Your Work Every day
A great culture doesn’t mean you love your work every day. All of us need to recognize this because we’re in this overarching era where people are passionate about finding out what they’re good at and doing what they love right now. Our world allows us to do a lot of things that we love because we have the availability and connectivity to a lot of things, but work by definition is work. We have to recognize that great culture doesn’t mean every day is glorious. We are still doing a job, but it also doesn’t mean that it’s unenjoyable every day
DEFINE YOUR CULTURE
Every people unit has a culture or things that are valued as a team, and this can be true of families, organizations, countries, etc.
For example, if you came to my home, you would quickly see what we, as a family, value books. They’re stacked everywhere because I value learning. You’ll see sports equipment scattered around the house because we value health and exercise. If you came to my house, you would quickly understand what the Catron’s value and the same is true of your team or organization.
Take these bite-size ideas and live with them for the day. How would you define your culture? Sometimes, it’s easier to get some anchors on it when we think of culture in terms of what we value. Values are often the building blocks of our culture. Take a few minutes and list your organization’s values by using these three writing prompts.
3 WRITING PROMPTS TO DEFINE YOUR CULTURE
Question #1 | What’s vital to your organization?
These might be things that you’ve already defined, or they may be things that are just intrinsic, and you can easily say, Yeah we value that!
Question #2 | What do others experience?
When people come to your office, or when people come to your church, what do they experience? How do they feel? Those are the things that you likely value.
Question #3 | What are your customs or traditions?
Culture, by definition, are the beliefs and customs of a particular group, so what are your beliefs? What are some of your traditions as a team? Consider the way that you think, behave, and how you work as a team.
CREATE YOUR SHORTLIST AND DEFINE YOUR CULTURE
Make that shortlist of the things that your team, your organization values. List the things that are true of your team even if there’s something you’re not particularly excited about or proud of right now. Later we’ll go a step further, and we’ll add aspirational values you would like to find true about you, your team, and your culture.
Culture is the idiosyncrasies or nuances that make you and your team unique. They’re built on the things you value most. Now that we know what culture is and isn’t, we’ll continue next week and answer the question, why culture matters.
I’d love to hear your culture values. Share them or if you have a question about culture, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep leading well.
Jenni Catron and The 4Sight Group
Most leaders agree that a healthy culture is essential in any organization. Everything we do as leaders is either building or eroding culture.
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